Eleanor Pincus looked everything I did not. Her typical attire: a smartly tailored suit, skirt ending sensibly just above her knees, and a fitted coat tapered perfectly to the end of her skirt. With that precision, you knew you’d never catch a glimpse of slip or, God forbid, a frayed hem. Stockings covered her legs, pumps her feet, and, like Bette Davis or my grandmother, she never left the house without her hat and gloves.
I can see those white gloves, their flattened fingers crossed carefully beside her at the checkout desk. With even, careful script, marked an A for penmanship 50 years before no doubt, she addressed one side of the reserve card to herself, the other side with the bestseller du jour, her phone number to call her when the book arrived.
That was our policy: For a dime, patrons filled out a card to place any book on reserve. Then, as soon as the book was returned, the computer alerted us and we phoned the patron. Our patrons did it for all the bestsellers, because even though we bought endless copies of those inane books and they circulated for only 7 days at a time, there were never enough for our clamoring masses. The stack for The Bridges of Madison County must have been 2 inches thick that year. John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, they were the perennial favorites. Nothing highbrow you can see, but Eleanor Pincus read it all. Whatever was on reserve, there was her name.
The patrons of the library were wealthy. Not the muted kind of wealth that wears torn jeans and drives a Volvo, but a louder kind, the kind that argues a 25¢ overdue fine while sporting a 2-karat diamond ring and clutching a Prada bag.
Eleanor Pincus wasn’t like that. She never argued a fine—but then again she never had a fine. And she always had the dime ready for each reserved book. Oh, there was a rock on her finger when she removed the glove but it wasn’t one that shouted at you or got caught on anything. It was just there, as perfectly put together as Eleanor Pincus herself.
I was three years out of college that summer, three years that had moved far too fast. Working, checking out books at your local library when you went to an Ivy League, how do you explain that one to the mothers of long-lost friends from elementary school who exclaimed when they saw you: You were so smart, why don’t you go to law school or medical school. The summer after college, even six months later, a year is ok. But three years later?
Naturally, I was very good at checking out books. A quick study when they instituted a new computer system, easily answering the confused questions of the befuddled old ladies I worked with. But three years later with nothing grander on the horizon? What’s wrong with her?
That summer, that summer I remember as sweat, skin that glistened and cotton t-shirts that clung, relieved only by my hours inside the gloriously air-conditioned library. My parents’ house had no AC of its own so after I peeled myself off my sheet in the morning and found life again beneath the cold spray of the shower, the last thing I wanted to do was cover my legs with nylon, cotton, denim, anything. I remember pulling on the nicest pair of shorts I had—only to be sent home to change as soon as I arrived. The no-shorts policy. It never occurred to me to wear a skirt.
I wore jeans throughout that heat. Jeans and shapeless oversized t-shirts that broadcast my college’s baseball team or a city my parents had visited. I tried to brush my hair loose, but a ponytail beckoned as soon as I stepped out of the car. By the time I entered the refreshing refrigerator of a library, there I was, ponytail hanging, and jeans, t-shirt, and sneakers, ready to pick up your reserves for you and check out your books.
Randi Cooper’s parents recognized me. Randi Cooper, with whom I’d played regularly in fifth grade, but never since. I remembered her with bug eyes and yellowed skin relieved only by red blotches, living in an empty house that smelled of kitty litter. By the time high school rolled around, she had developed a persona of maturity far beyond her years, and she and I would never speak. Later I would find out that her parents were first cousins, her flaky skin and vision troubles the direct result of too many common genes. A revelation that would stun me since this wasn’t Kentucky or West Virginia, but the upscale Northeastern suburbs. But what are two kids in love to do?
You might hope nothing.
But not the Coopers. Which, I can only hope, explains the nastiness with which they eyed me.
Hope, this stranger said. Hope Freeman?
Yes, I looked blankly at the bespectacled woman who now was nudging the portly man, it’s Hope Freeman.
All we ever heard was Hope, she was saying.
I continued to stare blankly, and so she caught herself‚ Sue and Sy Cooper, Randi’s parents.
Ohh…paste on the fake smile, paste it as fast as you can, and eliminate (now!) that image of Randi and her equally preternaturally mature friend Lauri in the lockerroom in their satin bras discussing wrinkle cream. (Now I find out that maybe Randi did really have reason to worry at 17.)
Gosh, Mrs. Cooper is saying, when Randi was 10, that was all we ever heard, Hope, Hope, Hope. Hope’s reading on a ninth-grade level, Hope does her own math problems…
She falters for a moment, and then Mr. Cooper pipes in.
So what are you doing now, Hope?
With a helpless shrug, I gesture around me. What’s Randi up to, I manage.
And then I hear it. Randi’s at med school.
Dr. Cooper. Could it be? If so, it had to be a second-rate med school.
I remember Randi crying when you were chosen over her for the spelling bee, Mrs. Cooper is saying.
Ok already, I was the teacher’s pet that year, I admit it. She thought I was Shakespeare, Einstein, Michelangelo—all rolled into one. I did have my own math group, and reading, and spelling. I read Charlotte Bronte that year, and Jane Austen, and I participated in the math Olympiads and the spelling bee, ok already.
We’ll tell Randi we saw you, says Mrs. Cooper as she and her incestuous husband head out, her eyes lingering one more time on my greasy ponytail, the t-shirt that hides the real semblance of a woman’s body that I have.
I wish I’d known then that they were first cousins.
Angelina was a long-divorced Italian lady who worked the desk with me. Unlike most of our other co-workers, she had both a brain and a sense of humor. But even they couldn’t help when it came to the Coopers. She just rolled her eyes at their departing backs. The ridiculousness unspoken. But it would have been more ridiculous if I weren’t sleeping in the same bed I’d slept in at 11, the yellow-flowered comforter warming the bones of the fast developing girl who was the smartest in her class. Opportunity before her.
It wasn’t as if I squandered it. It wasn’t as if my full breasts at 12 had transformed me into the class slut as they did in so many cases. It wasn’t as if I suddenly got embarrassed about my brains, and hid them beneath a layer of make-up and flirtation with the boys. It wasn’t as if I found alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, any of those pitfalls or paths open and beckoning to many a lonely girl, smart or not, tiptoeing through the minefield of adolescence. I did none of that. I was a high school success story, graduating at the top, heading to the Ivy Leagues. Maybe that’s what made my current circumstances all the more delightful.
No man, no career, no child, no home of her own.
Maybe the Coopers were right to gloat. It’s easy to shine in childhood. Not so adulthood.
But to go back to earlier that year to springtime when the world is beautiful, and so was the park. The library perched atop a park that incorporated a WPA-built duck pond at its top, a natural lake down at the other end. Cherry trees lined the duck pond, their blossoms raining down on mothers strolling with children, tossing the crumbs of crusts into the water beneath signs warning against feeding the water fowl. Mallard ducks and Canada geese, long since given up on migration in this golden Eden, sailed up, pecking at the bread like overstuffed tourists who’ve already satiated themselves on the city’s finest.
A small brook meandered its way slowly from the duck pond down the hill to the lake, while a long expanse of green was interrupted only by a small playground full of laughing children and resting mothers, library books tucked under their strollers. Beyond all that was a boardwalk overlooking the natural lake where willows wept and two swans mated in the rushes and raised a family of cygnets each year.
Was it any wonder I was still hanging around?
My vigil would start in April or May when the parents, the cob and pen, took turns guarding the nest. You’d see a lone figure across the lake, each silent glide savored, as if the last before the babies came, while closer to home the pen sat on the eggs, ever alert, her muscles moments away from drawing themselves up to her 6 feet, beating her wings, and striking. The swans were ever protective of their young.
Around Memorial Day, the cygnets hatched, about six or seven fuzzy gray balls bobbing on the water. As the days and then weeks passed, nature culled them so that only a couple reached adolescence and fewer still adulthood. I’d watch each year, a silent mourning for the lost ones, no doubt forgotten as the survivors’ necks stretched out, their bodies expanded, and wings grew through the summer months straight into the fall. At some point over the winter, the newly grown swans would have to leave, strike out on their own before finding a mate and a pond, but I never saw it happen. It would get too cold, I’d stop going down to look, and by the time I returned in the spring, I would just have to assume that they had shed those last mottled feathers, assumed the pure white grace of their parents, and taken off into the world. Either that, or the cob drove them out before mating season rolled around—something I found out he did when I began to wonder what would happen if they never left.
It was early in the cygnets’ lives, when five or six were still alive, that I saw Eleanor Pincus outside of the library. We weren’t the only ones enjoying the view from the boardwalk: it was also a favorite spot for gulls to perch. As picturesque as that may be, what accompanied them, and indeed all the ducks and geese of the park, were of course their droppings—which left me walking warily along the boardwalk, zigzagging to keep my sneakers clean, and eyeing all the seats for big white splotches. Leave it to Eleanor Pincus to find an area absolutely free of seagulls and their crap.
She maintained a suit in the early June weather, but then it was linen. If it wrinkled while she sat I never saw it. She wore her trademark hat, this one more wide-brimmed to deflect the early summer sun than her winter ones, and still the gloves. A large pair of Jackie O sunglasses shielded her eyes, and I had the distinct impression that if I were to run into Jackie O in Central Park she wouldn’t look nearly as smart, composed, and downright classy as Eleanor Pincus.
I was there on my lunch hour to enjoy the swans, but if Eleanor Pincus was there for the same reason, she wasn’t at the moment. She was absolutely absorbed in her library book. Back straight, ankles crossed, she turned each page with a gloved hand—and I contrasted her figure with my own, back curved and feet sprawled across the bench, when I gave myself over to the world of reading. But stop: there was no comparison. My own figure next to Eleanor Pincus’s? It was laughable.
She didn’t look up as I approached, didn’t stir as I picked my way around the droppings. I knew she would never walk like this—chin down, shuffling her feet in a fruitless dance of avoidance. When she stood and strode away, the crap would fade before each step, her feet sailing across the same unspoiled clapboards that she sat on now. Crap was only there if you looked for it.
I’d also brought a book to read, and I pulled my knees up to my chin as I found a relatively unscathed bench to sit on, half the boardwalk away from Eleanor Pincus. Beneath the fleeting blue-skied, 70-degree day of perfection I pulled out the library’s battered copy of Jane Austen. Could any library worker be more of a cliché? And yet, like the day itself, her prose is pure perfection, and where better to be taken when you’re an immobilized Ivy League graduate working check-out at the very library you first checked this book out of at the tender age of 11 than to the Netherfield Ball?
A single glance had told me what Eleanor Pincus was reading. I couldn’t have missed the small hardcover. It was a publishing phenomenon, only then, what, 52, 62, 72 weeks into its mind-boggling 162-week run on the NY Times’ bestseller list, 38 weeks at #1 no less. The Bridges of Madison County hit some kind of nerve in the nation and women swooned while men fantasized, I am Robert Kincaid, the peregrine, the last in the evolutionary chain. Oh Eleanor Pincus, how long ago had you filled out your reserve card? Even with our record 50+ copies of the book, we couldn’t keep the pace. The demand far outstripped the supply.
For pure fun I read it. You read it in a day, an hour. Eleanor Pincus should’ve been able to finish it before her back stiffened too much from leaning against that bench. But oh what drivel! What pure unadulterated crap! I am a peregrine indeed. Dream on, Mr. Robert Kincaid.
Was Eleanor Pincus’s reading eye like her feet? Could it steer clear of crap wherever it roamed or did it stride right in? Did it revel in it? Was she Francesca alone on the farm, ravished with love, bearing her passionate secret to the grave?
Perish the thought.
But who knew what Eleanor Pincus thought. Her face was a mask. These were the days before Botox, but even then there were plenty of knives. Back at the desk I told Angelina whom I’d seen down by the swans. “Zhoop,” she called her, as she sucked in her cheeks and pulled an imaginary string up from the top of her head.
Eleanor Pincus’s perfect presentation to the world: not a wrinkle in her clothing, not a wrinkle on her face.
She returned The Bridges two days later when she had two more reserve books to pick up. I don’t remember what they were, but they were all of a kind. Sue Grafton, James Paterson, those were the staples back then.
Oh Eleanor Pincus.
Oh Hope Freeman. Twenty-five then, you could hear 26 galloping toward you. See that summer, some old, old—literally old—friends of your parents out for a barbecue. They were mathematicians and as a child you used to delight in sharing problems with them. The word problems from your math Olympiads, puzzles they would save for you. They enjoyed it because you were so sharp—she’s a mathematician they told your mother, and still your mother sighs that you didn’t take any math classes in college. And even they smile and shake their heads, you never did anything with your math? But it isn’t like the Coopers, there’s no glee in their voices. Nothing mean, just, perhaps, surprise, and maybe a little sadness. And then Grace, who has aged noticeably, both of them have, you get the feeling you might never see them again when they drive tentatively off long before dark—and you’ll be right as Alzheimer’s and heart disease creep up with general old age—then Grace whispers in your ear, how old are you?
Twenty-five, you whisper back, and she smiles a warm and soothing smile. Twenty-five, she says, that’s a good year. And it was the best thing that she could have said. Twenty-five was a good year. It was the year you woke up, stopped moping, and started doing. It was the year you left the library.
But all that was later.
Beneath the humming fluorescent lights I peered out at the patrons. Don’t let the Coopers return. Don’t let my classmates come in here. Don’t let my old teachers use these facilities. My parents’ friends, my neighbors, my friends’ parents, oh no. Paula Berger. There she was, as imperious as I remembered her from kindergarten when she threatened to call my parents for not asking to be excused from the table when we were eating lunch. I had a puzzle to finish—I’d been interrupted when we’d been called in to eat—and my friend Samantha had told me to go finish it. But oh her mom was angry. And oh she was every bit as formidable when I was 25 as she was when I was 5.
Well you know Samantha’s at law school, she was saying.
Yes I knew Samantha was at law school. Yale Law School to be exact. If I was one of the smartest kids growing up, Samantha was the other. If she’d been in my fifth-grade classroom, I might not have been the teacher’s pet. Or the only teacher’s pet. We were a formidable team when we put our brains together, and we were friends when little and then vaguely, passing friends as we grew. I always had the sense that Samantha was in a competition with me—but it was a one-sided competition because I wasn’t running the race, at least not intentionally back then. It was as if I’d been galloping at my own rhythm and somehow found myself not only on the racetrack, but in the lead. How much easier it is to not participate when you’re actually winning.
I graduated slightly higher, and I went to a better Ivy than Samantha. But she went to Yale Law School. Then she clerked for a Supreme Court Justice. Before long she would marry, land a professorship, and have a child. I still fully expect to see her on the Supreme Court one day. So if Paula Berger had any doubts about her daughter that day in the library, my presence checking out her Barbara Kingsolver—she was no Bridges reader!—should have told her loud and clear: the race is officially over. Samantha has won.
After Paula Berger left, Eleanor Pincus came to the desk. A simple green dress today with a white linen jacket. And still no wrinkles. How did anyone not get wrinkles in their linen? I had wrinkles in my cotton t-shirts. Snapping open her purse, a gloved finger reached inside for a dime.
I’m afraid it’s late, she said, her eyes shielded behind her Jackie O’s. She’d tried something new, tying a scarf around her head, her super black hair visible at the edges. Maybe she was headed to the hairdresser next, because I saw a few strands loose.
Surprised, I took her dime. Eleanor Pincus was human. She was human. She let a book go overdue. What a relief to be human. But oh, how sad. Perhaps it’s a relief in some, even most cases, to find out that others are human when you feel only too human. But not in all cases. Sometimes there’s nothing more reassuring than the Eleanor Pincuses of the world. The perfect perfect people.
We should have all had an inkling then. The tiny pebble landing beside the swans on the crystal lake. A beating of wings, concentric circles of peace disturbed. She didn’t fill out any reserve cards that day.
We all had our own lives to live. At one whiff of Sue Cooper squinting her way in, I ducked inside the little office and hid until she left. On my break, I slipped into the career room, and tried to compute the life options lined so neatly on the shelves: how to get into graduate school, film school, careers in publishing, business, law. Could these be the only choices? I checked out travel books, and calculated the expenses. Southeast Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, the West. Maybe I could do it.
Then one morning, before I even had the chance to realize I hadn’t seen her in a while, Angelina turned to me and, sucking in her cheeks and pulling her face taut with that invisible string above her head, said, remember “Zhoop,” she passed away.
She what? She died.
Suddenly, impossibly, Eleanor Pincus was gone. The lady who was always turned out turned in. Some stomach pains had led her to the doctor, where subsequent tests indicated pancreatic cancer, a swift and unstoppable killer that left her dead just four weeks after her diagnosis. Like that. Death, prompt and efficient, like Eleanor Pincus herself.
The library had called to say her books were in. She hadn’t filled out any new reserve books the last time we saw her, but she had old postcards in the pipeline. Abruptly, a man—we presume her husband—had said, she’s very sick, she won’t need her reserves. Not knowing what exactly “very sick” meant, and in consideration of Eleanor Pincus, patron extraordinaire, the reservist carefully marked down the names of all the books she was still waiting for—for the day that she came back. Who would have thought she wouldn’t?
Pancreatic cancer. It conjures up images of aged barflies hacking up half a lung as they down another scotch. Eleanor Pincus, a smoking, drinking barfly? Please! But didn’t she have to be? How else to explain pancreatic cancer? I tried to imagine her with a cigarette—Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, it was a part of those smartly dressed women. Hats, gloves, and cigarettes. Eleanor Pincus too? And drinking? Those women liked their cocktails certainly. Fasten your seatbelts and all that. But if Eleanor Pincus drank too much, she had to have done it quietly. She couldn’t have become suddenly loud, talking out of turn, laughing for all to hear, causing heads to turn, destroying marriages and lives. Not my Eleanor Pincus.
I didn’t even know how old she was. Couldn’t hazard a guess. With the saran-wrapped face and jet black hair it was impossible to tell. Was her life cut short at 55, or had she at least made it to 70? Who knew. She could have been one of those, or anywhere in-between. It didn’t matter though. Whatever her age, she was gone.
Was her husband weeping, were there children to mourn? She’d had a life, she had to have had a life. But I didn’t want to know about it. She was Eleanor Pincus.
I went down to the boardwalk after work. It was September by then, but still it was a sticky, hazy, dying day, and I wished I had shorts on rather than my clinging jeans. There were just two cygnets left, swimming with their parent swans. They were almost as big as the stunning white creatures, their elongated necks curving as if to say, look at us, we’re graceful too. But still they were gray and mottled. Still not quite there.
Seagull crap, and more seagull crap. I leaned against a small clean section and shook my head at the gull perched to my left. Why did they have to make such a mess? So picturesque, and then them, making us watch where we walk. I turned my eye back to the swans, and as I did so, I felt some tears well up. I tried to laugh at myself, to speak out loud, c’mon Hope, you didn’t even know the woman. But as I stood on the boardwalk, shedding a tear for a well put-together stranger, the pieces of the equation were coming into focus, and I could sense the sky darkening, the shadows lengthening, and the cob approaching the cygnets, beating his wings as they float still on the lake.
Charlotte Warren has been awarded fiction honors by the Michigan Quarterly Review and Emrys Journal. Her fiction has also appeared in such journals as Calyx, The Brooklyn Review, and New Millennium Writings, as well as the anthology Juncture: 25 Very Good Stories and 12 Excellent Drawings. She lives with her family in New York.